Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are Scientists Self-Critical Enough?

There is a widespread misconception among the American public that scientists and academics in general are smug, self-satisfied, abrasive, entitled, obnoxious, over-opinionated weenies who, for all of their competence in their field of study, can be surprisingly out of touch with ordinary realities, such as the basics of personal hygiene, how not to be socially awkward, or how to calculate a tip after dining out; and, furthermore, that their hyper-specialized environment fosters a profound ignorance of anything beyond their ken which inevitably leads to an atrophy of the non-specialized mind, the lack of which may be leading us to disaster. (Contrast this with Goethe, one of several intellectuals during the Enlightenment era who had good reason to believe his scientific accomplishments would be better remembered than his literary ones.) Despite these criticisms, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth; that although academics have their fair share of shortcomings and peccadilloes, on the whole they are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings I have ever known.

However, it is clear that we still need a healthy dose of critical self-evaluation every now and then. A recent opinion piece by Colin Macilwain in Nature highlights how self-criticism is necessary for the healthy operation of any industry, in order to highlight the bad as well as the good. For example, although within the United States federally-funded research has skyrocketed in recent years, there has been little systematic investigation into the effects of this spending; in short, whether Americans are actually getting a return for their dollar. This has parallels with the amount of education spending within the past few decades, which, although mind-bogglingly high, has not led to proportional increases in standardized test scores or improvements in rankings compared to countries who spend less. The argument that it would be worse otherwise is tenuous at best.

So, is a good, hard look at ourselves really what we need? We might take an example from Wordsworth, whose wellsprings of self-criticism appeared to dry up halfway through his career, and so spent the remaining few decades writing verse he never should have started, the vast collection of his later work serving as a sort of monument to decayed genius. A recurrent theme with either individuals or societies faced with an embarrassment of riches and the unceasing flattery of their colleagues is a failure to occasionally step back and objectively evaluate oneself, which eventually leads to complacency, and, finally, decadence.

Some may attribute this lack of self-criticism to the recent homogenization of opinion within academia, which at one point was supposed to be a marketplace of ideas - no matter how eccentric - but where recently opinions on everything from religion to politics have become remarkably predictable, with miniscule variations in opinion, always in degree but never in kind, serving as a kind of ersatz dissent where one can still feel the thrill and righteousness of disagreement with none of the discomfort that comes with having one's worldview fundamentally challenged. Here I must disagree, as since we have committed to making steady progress toward truth throughout our species' history, it is necessary to discard incorrect opinions and theories as they come up, and so we must feel no compunction (ethically speaking, of course), to extirpate, smother, stifle, and suffocate contrary views which would seek to undermine opinions that have been empirically validated and widely held by the majority of intelligent individuals. Mill's views on this were, I am afraid, sorely misguided.


  1. I definitely appreciate your call for self-criticism, but will have to strongly disagree with your last paragraph (at least the way I currently understand it - and I hope I haven’t misunderstood). I would even claim it might be interpreted in a way so as to promote dangerously anti-intellectual, and logically fallacious thinking - and practice!

    Arguments should be judged on their logical and factual merits alone, not based on what opinions were "empirically validated and widely held by the majority of intelligent individuals."

    Many such opinions that were supposed empirically validated and widely held by the majority of intelligent individuals have later been reversed and proven wrong, and this would not have been possible without the existence of dissenting opinions that were at some point minority views, often ridiculed, thought to be "unscientific" simply because they didn't mesh with the existing orthodoxy. If it had been even more acceptable to "smother, stifle, and suffocate" them than it already was, they would have never seen the light of day.

    I can already see many widely held views in the scientific community (I am a scientist myself) that certainly don't have enough support to withstand certain challenges and criticism, and that might easily get reversed if enough attention (and funding) is given to examining countervailing views. To be specific, many theories in the field of nutrition that are held as mainstream to the point of influencing policy, and to the point of the mainstream laughing in the face of counterclaims, stand on very weak intellectual merits ... Some have already been reversed or are in the process of being so.

    Many philosophical views held by scientists are just as misguided, and I find that scientists often fancy themselves philosophers but often make philosophically absurd assumptions and egregious logical errors when it comes to fundamental claims. Most of them were not trained in logic and epistemology (etc.) after all.

    The only way "self-criticism" is possible would be if a voice is given to those who would criticize. Feel free to "snuff" bad arguments and bad reasoning with good logic and good reasoning, but don't feel free just to call on the intellectuals to use majoritarian bullying tactics (really mob tactics) to just silence critics, as the words "smother", "stifle", and "suffocate" would imply.

    1. In the end, the structure of the scientific establishment is quite monolithic (at least more so than true academic thinking would require), and this increases the chances that scientific "orthodoxies" get established prematurely. the establishment is monolithic in the sense that many fields are funded by only a few institutions, in the sense that many studies are often funded by institutions (or companies) that have conflicting interests to disinterested scientific inquiry (think of pharmaceutical research), and in the sense that, for instance, there aren't two or three schools of thought on "how to do science", like there are Democrats and Republicans in politics. There is just one, and that one is the one that validates new scientists and their studies.

      In other words, for me to get my degree and get published, I am told to follow pre-existing prescriptive standards on how to conduct studies in my field, but what if I find the standards to be not rigorous enough? What if I wish to fortify them, and what if I start challenging the way people in my field have done research up till now? I'll be quickly committing career suicide. This itself increases the likelihood that majority-held opinions are self-propagating even if/when they contain major flaws. This is all the more reason to reverse this institutional thinking about science and to to think of it more as a welcome debate between many intelligent people who may all see the world differently. This is also all the more reason to champion "open science".

      Consider the following as food for thought:




    2. How DARE you criticize my post? Nobody has the right to criticize anything I write, for it is perfection.

      In truth, in the above post I wrote that last paragraph tongue-in-cheek; by no means am I advocating stamping out dissent. The reason I bring it up is because serious self-criticism is easy to talk about, but incredibly difficult to do. I recall a lecture by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who talked about how science can run into cul-de-sacs of spurious but incestuously rewarding research, but that it manages to progress through built-in correction mechanisms. However, this whole concept of "If it has worked before, it will work in the future, and until eternity", seems a bit facile; Lysenkoism was more than a curious historical anomaly.

      But I greatly appreciate your words, as well as the references; I am just now beginning to read through them. I can see that you are passionate about the subject, and I thank you for such a thoughtful and thorough response. This isn't a subject I have researched very much, but whenever I see an article or an editorial about it, I stop and think about how it applies not only to people I know, but also to how I do research.

      Thanks, and feel free to comment anytime!


    3. Thanks for the reply. I had a suspicion that it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I couldn't tell for sure :)

      The funny thing - which is the reason behind my comment - is that quite often, I encounter people, many of whom are not really involved in doing science, who really believe that you should just listen to what comes out of the scientific community without questioning what the community is saying, and these are the people in society who consider themselves to be most "pro-science" and pro-intellect. They don't realize that just taking a person or establishment on his/her words based solely on his/her authority (or perceived authority) is itself the epitome of anti-intellectualism, not to mention that it's generally accepted as a classical logical fallacy.

      Keep posting - it's all very interesting stuff!

    4. And I fully agree with you on the real possibility of pursuing what you aptly call "incestuously rewarding research". The incentive structure for scientists is set up to make this really attractive, in my humble opinion. I hypothesize that perhaps a structural and institutional change aimed to redefine incentives, and to reform mechanisms for career advancement, could potentially correct for this ... I think a lot of aspects would have to change though.